Highly anticipated by those in the know, fall spells peak season for targeting flounder across northeast Florida. Believe it or not, it’s that time of the year already and the first cold fronts of the upcoming winter are already on their way. With this southerly push of chilled air, local water temperatures begin to drop, triggering the start of a mass exodus as countless flatfish skirt the bottom toward area inlets.
In preparation of a treacherous migration to deeper water where these chameleon-like killers spend the winter months semi-burrowed in the sandy substrate, gorging ensues as flounder fatten up for the long journey ahead. With quality numbers of fish on the move that are anxious to eat, here is what you need to know to catch your fair share of what many argue is the very best tasting fish in the sea.
It’s important to note that flounder inhabit many of the same types of structure where local anglers typically find drum and trout, but they are more tolerant to brackish conditions.
Because we know flounder head to deeper water during the fall after spending spring and summer spawning in the shallows, northeast inlets pave the way to success for the next eight to twelve weeks, with the St. Marys River, St. Johns River and St. Augustine area all holding healthy populations. During flooding tides start your search inside the cuts and work your way as far upriver as you can, fishing tight to the rocks, channel edges and seawalls along the way in no more than 15 feet of water.
For small boaters, when the tide turns, the very best position to find yourself in is as far back in the flooded marshes as you’re comfortable with. Flounder also hunt in water barely knee deep, so don’t be afraid to fish shallow. This is where kayaks really shine as they provide skinny water fishermen around the northeast region’s flooded marshes the perfect platform for accessing trickling creeks and small cuts no other craft can reach. Paddle fishermen are famous for fishing and exploring these world-class estuaries with impressive results.
It’s important to note that flounder inhabit many of the same types of structure where local anglers typically find drum and trout, but they are more tolerant to brackish conditions. This means creek mouths with tidal flow emptying into the river, docks with associated weathered pilings, and distinct channel edges are all worthy of investigation. These are prime hideouts where flounder hunt, lying motionless in the bottom with only their eyes protruding while waiting for an unsuspecting meal to wander too close.
Fishing these areas is all done on the move as once they are comfortably staged, flounder generally stay put until a lack of food source or changing conditions dictate their movement. Wise flounder pounders know when they drift over pay dirt and land a flattie or two to work the area thoroughly as there are likely more fish nearby. With so many likely hideouts, seasoned vets also know when it’s time to move on.
Once in position, perfectly blended in with the bottom, flounder aren’t picky eaters. If it has claws, flippers or fins and they can fit it in their mouth, they’ll attempt to eat it. Mud minnows, shrimp and finger mullet are the top three offerings. Live baits are best fished off a medium action spinner or casting outfit loaded with ultra sensitive 10 lb. braid, or 12 lb. monofilament. A simple fish finder rig will do the trick with the weight of the lead depending on depth and velocity of current, so come prepared with everything from 1/8 oz. to 2 oz. eggs. Complete the rig with 18-inches of 30 lb. fluorocarbon tied to a 2/0 circle or kahle hook. Impale mullet and minnows in the mouth or nostrils and shrimp in the horn, being careful not to puncture any vital organs.
Since flounder spend the vast majority of their lives lying flat, the effective strike zone is no more than a few inches off the substrate, so keep constant contact with the bottom. The strike of a hefty flounder is often compared to snagging a plastic bag. When you notice extra weight, it is very likely the fish has grabbed the meal but understand that flounder win no awards for being fast eaters. Open the bail or freespool line and allow a ten second drop-back before reeling tight.
Fishing artificials is also an effective means to connect, with fake baits mimicking the flounder’s preferred forage really the only viable options. Three and four-inch jerkbaits, plastic shrimp, and small light colored bucktails are great choices. Remember to work artificials slowly and methodically, basically crawling them along the bottom. Once a strike is detected, give the fish a couple seconds to turn the lure in its mouth before swiftly driving the hook home.
If you only take away one thing from this refresher course remember this—once a fat flounder is boatside you’ll want to use a landing net to seal the deal, or risk watching your dinner swim away. Frisky flounder are famous for shaking free just seconds from meeting their demise. Happy hunting!
Rules & Regulations
Juvenile flounder grow rapidly and may reach more than 10 inches by the end of their first year. Like with most species, the largest fish reaching 30 inches are almost always females. While Florida law only requires a 12 inch minimum length with a 10 fish per day bag limit, flounder this size don’t yield a great amount of meat. It is better to release these smaller fish unharmed and only harvest flounder greater than 15 inches. In recent years, some of my best catches have come from tributaries off the St. Johns River in the downtown area. I have found there are plenty of doormats lingering in the brackish creeks of the river and these areas see less attention from anglers specifically targeting flounder.